23 May 2008

Toolbelt Theory for Everyone

How will your students communicate when they leave school? How will they gather information? How will they say what they need to say?

How will they make phone calls? Leave messages? Read books? Do research? Tell their boss they are stuck in traffic coming back from that meeting? How will they get their news? Check their bank records? Pay their mortgage? Arrange their vacation? Sell their services? Sell possessions they no longer want? How will they learn the things they need to learn? How will they tell the stories that they need - or want - to tell?

Schools - in the old days - were interested in these kinds of skills. Schools taught things like how to read books, how to read newspapers, how to read stock tables. They taught how to find books in the library and how to write business letters. Even (sometimes) how to write cheques, read classified advertisements, compare prices in display ads, address envelopes, read maps, type, write legibly. Yes, maybe some of this training came to me because I wasn't always in those "top" classes, but I think most students received significant trainings in the communications technology of the age. At least the "apparent" technologies of the age.

But in the time when most of our teachers, school administrators, government officials, and legislators went to school, little changed on the "apparent" side of ICT. Newspapers and phone calls may have been produced in radically different ways in 1990 as opposed to 1960, but the end-user did not see much difference. So these people have been trained in complacence. They grew up in a world of little technological change (as it touched them) and they now resent change. They're often still angry that we want them to be able to program their VCRs, and VCRs are almost history.

So they don't want to teach about tools. The tools they know are gone, chucked to the curb with the card catalogues and 8-track players. The tools which are essential now - the tools which are essential everywhere outside of a school building - are outside of their realm of knowledge. This is why school today is so divorced from any reality.

Tools matter though. They are the most basic thing about being human.

We are many things - human beings - but above all we are tool users. Unlike most other species, and far more than any other species, we have defined ourselves by crafting tools which allow us to control our environment and overcome our limitations. Can't run as fast as a horse? Climb on the horse. Can't fight one-on-one with a Mammoth? Invent the spear. Can't remember everything you need? Create writing.

So tools matter. They matter most for those who lack the highest capabilities - a very old person and a very young person needs a car more often than a 20-year-old might - a short person needs a ladder more often than a tall person - a weak swimmer needs a boat when a great swimmer might not - but still, tools matter for everyone.

And everyone needs a properly equipped Toolbelt to get through life.

Toolbelt Theory

The thing about toolbelts though, is that no two people ever really need the same one. When I worked at one university and part of my job was being a cable stringing "tech monkey," three of us all began with the same toolbelt. Scissors, wire strippers, pliers, wire cutters, punch-down tool, screwdrivers. Within a week all three toolbelts were different. Within a month, very different. Screwdriver choices varied. Pliers were added and subtracted. I added a fish tool for dragging cables through walls, another added a device from Fluke that read network connections, and then I grabbed a quick-check tool that confirmed my wiring order because, you know, I'm not great with order. The belts changed as well. One was worn as a belt, mine was almost always slung across my shoulder. When I was a police officer, I watched a similar process operate on the gunbelts of cops coming out of the academy. They began all the same, and ended up as radically different collections of tools. Of course those tools changed as the world and technology changed. Drop pouches for revolver ammunition vanished and clip holders for automatics appeared, as one example. Then we needed to carry latex gloves. Flashlights changed. Radios changed. Mace came and went. Etc.

So the trick to tool use is to learn to evaluate tasks and environments and your skills and the tools themselves as they change and determine what works best for you. I call this the "TEST" - Task - Environment - Skills - Tools, a specifically ordered reframing of Joy Zabala's "SETT" protocol. A specifically ordered reframing designed for self-determination.

"Disability" has little or nothing to do with this. Everybody needs this skill set. Imagine your eyes getting weaker as you are faced with graduate school reading or long-distance truck driving - and you've never heard of eyeglasses and have no idea where to go for help. Imagine needing to rip up an old driveway and having never heard of a jackhammer, nor had any idea of how to get one. Imagine needing to get to your home's roof with nothing but a step ladder. Imagine needing a book but being unable to use a map in order to find the library.

In every case you need the TEST idea. Whether you are choosing the right saw to cut that piece of wood in that location or whether you are trying to find the map that will get you to the hospital you need in Paris or whether you are trying to find the academic article you need.

You need to know what you need to do (the specific task: cut 20 sheets of plywood or cut down a Christmas tree, find a book to buy or find a book to borrow). You need to know where you will be doing this (the specific environment: in a forest, in a workshop, in a town with a university library and four bookstores, in a place with neither). You need to know your own capabilities (your skill set: I am strong enough to cut down a tree with a hand saw, I am experienced enough that I can cut a straight line with a hand-held circular saw, I can walk to the bookstore, I know the Dewey Decimal System). And you need to know what is available to you to help you, and how to use those devices (your toolbelt: My neighbor has a chain saw, I can rent a table saw, a bus will get me to the bookstore, if I go online and reserve that library book it will be waiting for me at the counter).

This all sounds logical, but it is hardly automatic.

Choosing the right tool takes knowledge of yourself and the tools which are available. It takes practice in assessing the task and the environment. And in school we don't help students toward any of that. In school we prescribe methods and we require specific tools (the dreaded middle school planner, just as one particularly stupid example - the teacher-determined notebook style as another). In school we tell students what they can and can't do and we get very nervous when they really try to analyse their environment.

And on top of this, the tools most schools are devoted to are antiques which serve few functions anywhere outside of school. It is as if you were learning to build homes but were allowed to use only tools invented before 1940. You'd be close to unemployable when you finished that training.

Letting the world in

The only way to allow students to assemble this essential toolbelt for information and communication is to to throw open your classroom and let the world in. How will your students know which calendar works for them - the one on their phone, Google Calendar with SMS appointment texting, Microsoft Outlook, or any of a dozen paper systems unless you allow them to try them out? How will your students know whether they 'get' a novel better by listening to an audiobook, or reading it on paper, or using text-to-speech, if you don't let them experience all repeatedly and help them decide? Will their choice be the same when they are reading history texts? Math texts? Again, how will they know? How will they know which is the best way for them to write, by hand (either on paper or on a tablet system), by keyboard (and which keyboard), or by voice, if they do not get to try out all the kinds of writing they need to do with all these tools?

They won't know. And you - the school, the teacher, the education system - will have deprived them of these essential skills.

It matters for all students, of course, but- as always - if you are "rich, white, and normal" it matters a bit less. You will have fewer needs, your parents will buy you more supports, you will be surrounded in your daily life by sophisticated tool users. So not bringing Toolbelt Theory into your classroom just exacerbates inequity - yes, of course - as school does in most things.

Real differences in survival

This is not a matter of success in school. This is a matter of human survival. A couple of years ago I sat in a resource room in a suburban American high school and watched an 18-year-old high school senior try to fill out a job application. His writing was "not good." You might be able to make out most of the capital letters, but the small letters were just meaningless squiggles. I asked him, "Why don't you just print that all-caps?" But before he could answer the teacher interrupted. "We've been working on his small letters for four years now," she said, "we want him to keep trying."

Four years my friends. Well, surely longer. I bet they've been torturing this child since he was five-years-old.

I started to ask whether the teacher thought he'd get a job with an application that looked this way, but there was no real point. School is about school. It is hardly ever about anything else. So instead I grabbed a blank copy of the same application, I pulled my laptop and my Canon LiDE scanner out of my backpack. I scanned the application in, converted it to a "form fillable" Adobe Acrobat document, and told him to type his information in.

He was a slow typist. A painfully slow typist. And yet, his typing was about three times as fast as his handwriting, and, in the end there was a perfectly completed job application.

Might speech recognition help? Or typing on a smartphone keyboard with iTap word prediction? That would have been too much to suggest. The school district had just built a massive brand new high school. All the bells and whistles, yet, number of accessible computers in the district? Zero. Zero, despite three meeting I'd had with the school superintendent, two days spent with district's large tech staff, and meetings with special education teachers and school psychologists and social workers. Zero. They simply do not care.

So their students graduate not knowing how to fill out a job application. They graduate not knowing how to access library resources online. They graduate not knowing how to stay on schedule, or how to listen to their own writing if no one is around to help them edit, or how to send an appropriate text from their phone to an employer or professor if they are running late, or how to collaborate with other writers on a Google Document, or how to most effectively use spellcheck and auto-correct in Microsoft Word, or even - and I see this every day - how to search online for a job or a university course.

They simply do not know how to function in the 21st Century. They will not understand the tools that they need to function. And unless they are lucky, they will be doomed to a life on the margins.

When I wrote "Not Getting to Universal Design" a number of people objected to my thought that encouraging students to fail was a deliberate thing. I don't think that I really suggested that individual teachers deliberately sought student failure. It happens - I can think of a number of university faculty I have known - but that is rare. It is the system - the system which includes the training of teachers and the design of schools - which has, in my opinion, made the decision to encourage the failure of the majority of students. If they have not done that consciously, my only other thought is that they are unbelievably stupid, because they do the "wrong" things continuously. But, I don't think they are stupid because, well, somehow, their kids seem to do OK. Of course their kids have their laptops and iPhones and Blackberries and Wii. Their parents listen to audiobooks and dictate messages for others to type, and get emails on their phones all day long. They see Google Maps and GPS in use every day. Hell, daddy can even talk to their new Lincoln and tell it what to do.

Now all those education leaders can probably quote that old saying, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life." So I wonder, why won't we teach our students how to fish? And why won't we help them to learn the best way for each of them to fish?

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book


Karen Janowski said...

Thoughtful and challenging, as always.
Your story about the 18 y.o senior filling out the job application reminds me of something that I experienced just yesterday. I met with a resource teacher who works with a 4th grade student that I will be assessing. This student scores in the 99th percentile on the WISC-4 so we are talking about a brilliant child whose output does not match his ability due to his learning challenges. Technology is being minimally used which is why I have been asked to work with him. His output greatly increases when he is able to complete tasks on the computer. During the course of the conversation, she mentioned that he HAS to be able to write. I asked her what that meant to her. Her response, "Well, he has to be able to write shopping lists, to-do lists, phone numbers, things like that." Argh! Of course I was thinking to myself so let's force him to do things that reinforce his difficulties and not equip him for HIS future. When I work with him, I'll teach him about Jott, and inserting audio into Word and all the other tools that he needs to know about that can be part of HIS toolbelt.
I love your Toolbelt Theory. It is all about equipping our students for success and you cogently point out that each students' toolbelt will be a different collection of tools.
(And can we agree to get rid of those mandatory middle school planners?? In our town, they are also required for high school kids! They are the bane of existence for many students).

The Goldfish said...

This really was the best essay I've ever read about accessible education. Have come back a few times trying to think of a more insightful comment, but it was absolutely great.

Tim Lacy said...

Just a link to another educational idea that's been floated in other settings: transferable skills. This means that a teacher (at any level) tries to show how a skill (or thought process) learned in a class can be applied in other situations. In the liberal arts, we try to teach communication skills---whether it be by empathy, contextualizing, writing, speaking, etc. - TL

Cheryloakes50 said...

Thanks for this article and idea, toolbelt! Sharing with my Special Education staff as I teach about assistive technology using webtools and more.

Unknown said...

Great Post! Hopefully we can see some people's minds changed about AT with posts like this!

Chris said...

Stumbled onto this blog a couple of posts ago. Profound messages. They inspire me to work more diligently to find and promote technology tools to meet the unique needs of my staff and students. Thank you and keep them coming!

Mallory Burton said...

One of the high schools in our BC UDL project is planning to create some elective courses that kids could take for credit to really learn about technology that would help them succeed in high school and beyond. This is a high school that's already doing a great job with accomodations for learning and even testing with their students. I've suggested they use the Toolbelt Theory as a model. It's just in the planning stages, but I'll let you know how it turns out!

Andrew Pass said...

Great post, Ira. Students need to learn how to think about the relationship between their tasks and the tools they are using. Thanks for writing this.


Sue said...

Love the tool belt analogy. Will definitely share this article with my colleagues.

Police Academy said...

I will use your analogy of the toolbar as far the police academy goes, with the recruits. It is a great visual..